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North of 60

I have written before about the genesis of my writing career (post my public service career, that is), specifically why I employ the fantasy genre (July 29 and Aug 12, 2020), why I use animals to tell a story, why I anthropomorphize them (Aug 26 and Sept 9, 2020) and what’s important to me in story-telling (world-making, maps, history, illustrations, etc.). More recently, I’ve talked about the importance of persistence (July 31, 2021) and putting in the hours of improvement and practice (May 14, 2022).

But there is another important element that I haven’t touched on, which is my upbringing and early childhood.

Half of the first dozen years of my life were spent North of 60. For those who don’t know the term, it means north of the 60th parallel of latitude (60 degrees north of the equator, that is), in Canada’s case essentially the southern borders of the three territories: Yukon, Northwest Territories (NWT) and Nunavut. These areas are vast in size (3,921,739 acres, equal to 39% of the entire country), but small in population (119,000 in 2021, equal to 0.32% of the entire population).

I was born in Yellowknife, NWT, on Great Slave Lake, and lived in Fort Providence, Aklavik and Whitehorse, Yukon. My father served with the Canadian Armed Forces (in the Royal Canadian Signal Corps, as it then was), one of many signals officers and soldiers who kept the Northwest Territories and Yukon (NWT&Y) radio system going in the mid-20th century – a “virtually unknown saga in the history of the development of northern Canada”.

Twenty years ago, my mother wrote a history of our time up there, titled Down North, replete with many details and photos of daily life (e.g. my first baby picture, on page 5). From her history of those times, one can see where my passion to tell a story originates.

But the story of the NWT&Y radio system is a big, encompassing tale, one that gets into the history of Canada’s North and its economic and social development. I’d like to speak more personally of my memories. Inevitably, they often relate to books. Here is the first one worth noting. My parents bought it to give us kids an orientation to life in the Yukon; given that the author was born in Dawson City, spent time as a radio operator in the North and raised a team of husky sled dogs, it seems an inevitable choice. It’s a classic young person’s adventure story about rivalries over mine rights, an arduous trip into the Cassiar region and the hazards of the outdoor life. My parents read it aloud to my sister, brother and me on our trip north to Whitehorse in the summer of 1959. I read it again a couple of years ago, prior to an Alaskan cruise up the BC coast that stopped at Skagway, the main point of departure for the Klondike Gold Rush.

New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1955

My mother talks about that move in her story (page 10) but gives no detail about the trip itself. I should point out that we drove (a Morris Oxford station wagon, totally unsuited to the northern climate) and camped all the way from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Whitehorse, along the still-gravel 918-mile Alaska Highway (I think I can still taste the dust in my mouth). Here is Whitehorse troubadour Al Oster singing his famous ode to the highway.

I recall we kept a trip diary; everyone had to contribute one observation a day. It would be fun to unearth it today and look back, but it seems to have disappeared. Apart from the rough-and-tumble Alaska Highway (we loved the brief respites provided by the long, smooth cement bridges), the humongous mosquitoes stood out for me. They first appeared as we hit Fort Nelson, BC, and were with us every summer (along with horseflies, etc.) until we left.

This book was important for another reason: it was the first time we heard about the Tahltan bear dog. The breed, pictured on the front cover, seemed so exotic that we became determined to find and own one (we were successful, but that’s another story).

Besides the book-reading, our parents (I think they took turns) entertained us every night with puppet shows, using the tent pole as a base for storytelling. We owned several hand puppets, some of animal, some of human characters. The animals were our favorites. Mine included a bear (you can see how well used he is), a red fox and two dogs, all suitably named; my sister had two cats and my brother a tiger (maybe more, but those details escape me). We played with them constantly, making up stories and adventures. Naturally, I still have mine.

My well-used hand puppets

But there was more to my collection of books about the North. Two I still have: one a Christmas present and the other a birthday present, given to me during our stay in the Yukon. Northern Treasury is described in the inside front cover as follows: “The majesty, the challenge, the adventure and the humour of Canada’s great Northern and Western regions as it has appeared in the pages of the unique ‘BEAVER’ magazine.” The Golden Trail, Pierre Berton’s account of the 1896-99 Klondike Gold Rush, adapted for younger readers, is a classic (given the number and quality of his books on Canada, Berton is another author who deserves a post on his own).

Toronto: Thomas Nelson & Sons (Canada) Ltd., undated, collected stories from the HBC’s BEAVER magazine (1933-54)
Toronto: MacMillan, 1954

So, if I piece things together, my writing trajectory seems baked in. One thing for certain — I inherited no end of books from my mother when she downsized from the family home: of poetry (oh, so many), of prose, mythology, detective stories/police procedurals (early Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers; later P.D. James), and plenty of nonfiction on art, music and natural and social history. Although my father was not the inveterate reader my mother was, he had his collection of books on World War II and each week slowly worked his way through the entire London Sunday Times.

My love of books, of telling stories, particularly ones of adventure, my love of nature and wilderness, my preference for stories about animals in the outdoors — specifically a polar bear and an eider duck — stem from them.

Photo by Alenka Skvarc on Unsplash